The author of this post is from Pat Goodridge, he is a senior at the University of
Pennsylvania, where he studies linguistics and works for a Russian teaching site, He loves to study languages and run his Facebook page for linguistics majors, The Linguist Lattice. He hopes to pursue graduate work in Russian Studies.


The study of linguistic desire

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language (or has ever studied anything for that matter) knows the importance of motivation to learning. But what exactly is the extent of that importance, and are there different types of motivation to learn languages? If there are different types, what are they? And which ones result in the best results? More simply, where does the motivation to learn and understand language, what I would call “linguistic desire”, come from? A diverse and interdisciplinary area of work, the field studying motivation in second-language acquisition (SLA) pursues the answers to all of these questions. To do so, it pulls from a wide range of other fields, including psychology, sociology, pedagogy, and applied linguistics. Whatever your field, the chances are it relates to SLA and motivation in one way or another.

This domain of study, which has existed for nearly 70 years, has helped form new and ever more revealing findings about how and why students (and adults!) are motivated to study other languages. Though it is highly-specialized, the field contributes greatly to a wider understanding of effective second-language education. Such an understanding of second-language pedagogy can in turn positively inform educational policy in a way that helps individuals and whole societies overcome very real language barriers in international dialogue.


Change your language, change your life

In this sense, furthering our understanding of second-language education, and specifically of the role of motivation within it, has the capacity to impact an entire generation of people academically, professionally, and interpersonally. Reading about it here is a fantastic opportunity to do just that, and to help understand your own motivation to learn (or not learn!) languages in your own life.

Although it is seen in the English-speaking world as a subject of only minor significance, second-language learning is an issue of great significance for nearly all students of non-English speaking countries. This is due to the necessity of learning English and other lingua francas like it, for reasons both personal and professional (key an eye out for this distinction later on). Additionally, the significance of English education globally may also explain why so much of the research completed in the field is by non-native speakers of English through experiments on non-English speaking populations.

The most notable of these researchers are Zoltan Dörnyei (Hungary) and Ema Ushioda (Japan), who have emerged as figures central to the field’s progress, and both of whom work out of British universities. As we will see, however, the development of the field goes much deeper than the work of only two scholars; it reaches into the annals of psychology and other of science’s most fundamental fields.

While approaches of those in the field are varied both in their methodology and theoretical positions, the general trend of motivation in SLA (No, by the way, there isn’t any better a name for the field yet) is the evolution of theories from the earliest, most basic discoveries of motivation’s function in language learning, to a more well-defined binary of two motivational systems with fancy names (integrativeness and instrumentation), to the current nuanced concepts involving the learner’s self-concept (the Ideal L2 Self model). The latest research has also employed methodologies in line with those used in related scientific fields like cognitive science, in order to develop theories that can best represent empirical findings in a format familiar to the wider scientific community.


A history lesson

The topic of SLA and motivation has become most interesting to researchers in the last three decades. The roots of that interest, however, go back much further, to the work of R.C. Gardner of the University of Western Ontario. With his seminal 1959 work “Motivational variables in second-language acquisition”, Gardner asserted that motivation may be more important than aptitude in second-language performance. This opposed prevailing opinions of the time that so-called “ability for languages” was the best measure of success in language learning.

The study also introduced the relevance of “affective factors”, the emotional components to the language learning experience that vary between students, such as anxiety and internal self-esteem. Beyond discussing motivation as it relates to aptitude, Gardner went a step further by actually characterizing motivation in SLA; he created what he called the “Orientation Index”, a model specifying two types of motivation: integrative and instrumental. If you take one thing away from this post, let it be these two terms, since they represent the most fundamental reasons why students are motivated to languages.


Two sides of the same coin

The integrative theory, based on studies of Canadians learning French, proposed the idea that learners develop language skills in order to better integrate with another group. Furthermore, Gardner maintained that desire to integrate with such a group could be a strong motivating factor for students to achieve success in learning that group’s language. According to him, “An individual acquiring a second language adopts certain behaviour patterns which are characteristic of another cultural group and his attitudes towards that group will at least partly determine his success in learning the new language.” In this case, Canadians learning French to better relate to the majority French-speaking Québécoise were motivated according to the integrative approach.

The instrumental approach, on the other hand, described students who pursued the pragmatic reasons for learning languages, such as increased work opportunities. For example, a knowledge of French in Quebec would likely help one to procure a job, get admittance to the region’s best universities, or to otherwise more smoothly interact with customers, classmates, or coworkers in a way that would externally benefit the learner. The difference between these two types of motivation represented the difference between intrinsic (natural drive) and extrinsic (material, reward-reinforced) motivation in language learning.

Most of you are probably familiar with these terms; they’re the difference between going to work in the morning because you love your job, or because you want that new Ferrari. Anyhow, Gardner sought to compare the two types of motivation; he gave Montreal students of French a battery of tests to determine verbal intelligence and motivation in conjunction with proficiency tests. He found that the strongest determinant of language-learning success was, in fact, the integrative type of motivation—a “willingness to be like valued members of the language community”.


Modern motivation
This work by Gardner ushered in the social-psychological period in language learning, which lasted from the 50s to the 90s. The movement consisted of a flood research in the bilingual context of French Canada, both by Gardner himself as well as by Clément, a scholar who focused on phenomena like linguistic self-confidence in motivation. Clément’s work would influence much future work on affectual, psychological aspects of language study, such as “foreign language anxiety”, which is worry and nervousness experienced when learning or using a foreign language.

The social-psychological period was followed by a shift toward looking at language from a cognitive perspective, a move that reflected the “cognitive revolution” taking place in psychology during the 90s.

In contrast to a social-psychological model that emphasized the relationship of a learner to other cultures and linguistic groups, the idea advanced by scholars during this period was that motivation was more self-contained and subjective, relying on how one’s perception of one’s own abilities, limitations, and past performances influence motivation. A major example of a cognitive-based theory is Ushioda’s “attribution theory”. First described in the late 90s, the theory contends that the causal reasons a student attributes to his or her past performance play a critical role in her motivation in future endeavors within that area. In other words, a student’s motivation to study will skyrocket if they believe they are responsible for a good grade on a language test, whereas their motivation won’t change if they believe it was due to luck or some other reason. Likewise in a negative situation; if a student believes they failed because of their own shortcomings, their motivation will plummet, whereas it will stay constant if they “attribute” their failure to, say, a bad teacher. After over a decade, the theory still persists, with the support of researchers like Weiner, who maintain that a student’s motivation is influenced by how much control that student feels she has over his or her progress.

Following this cognitive shift came the so-called “process-oriented” period, which studied motivation as being dynamic, fluctuating within a semester, a year, and a lifetime. This period consisted mainly of two different models by Dörnyei in the late 90s and 2000s: the process model and the motivational self system. The process model tracks learner motivation chronologically, from the beginning goal stage, to intermediate learning stages, to a “reflection” stage wherein the student takes a look back at their progress. At each of these stages, motivation develops and takes on diverse forms as the learner gets feedback and his or her learning circumstances shift. The motivational self system focuses on a phenomenon Dörnyei calls the “ideal L2 self”, a person’s imagined ideal future self as a second-language speaker. It’s thought by Dörnyei and others that a desire to actualize this imagined self is a deep source of motivation for language learners. Now that’s cool.


The future of motivation

Advancing out of this idea of ideal self, current perspectives will, in the words of Ushioda, “seek to analyse L2 motivation with reference to a person’s motivational self-systems and future self-representations as a whole, rather than just as an L2 learner.” Other possible avenues for future research involve teacher motivation and teacher-student interface. The principal reason for interest in these areas is evidence showing that teacher performance, as a product of a teacher’s motivation, can have a profound effect of student motivation and, consequently, on student success. So choose your language teacher wisely.

Other researchers have been interested in affective factors of personality type, such as those found on the introversion-extroversion spectrum (be on the lookout for an article of mine on introvert-extrovert vocabulary learning), that may be influencing motivation by shaping a learner’s temperament, as well as their approach to social interaction in the classroom, to intercultural education, and to learning more generally. Adding these elements of teaching and personality to the field adds layers of complexity, but also layers of accurate variability that will help form a more precise portrait of second-language motivation in the future.

Until a more complete understanding of motivation in language learning is available, we will have to settle for the current, most accurate theory—“great language learners have plenty of motivation, poor ones do not”.




Dörnyei, Zoltán, and Kata Csizér. “The Internal Structure of Language Learning Motivation and

Its Relationship with Language Choice and Learning Effort.” The Modern Language

            Journal 89, no. 1 (May 2015): 19-36.

Gardner, R. C.; Lambert, W. E. . “Motivational variables in second-language acquisition”.

            Canadian Journal of Psychology, 13, (1959): 266–272.

Gardner, R. C. & Macintyre, P. D. “On the measurement of affective variables in second

language learning”. Language Learning, 43, (1993): 157-94.

Hastings, Christopher. “Teacher Motivation: The Next Step in L2 Motivation Research.”

            TNTESOL Journal 2012, 2012, 61-70.

Ushioda, E. “Motivation: L2 learning as a special case?”, In S. Mercer, S. Ryan, & M. Williams

(Eds.), Psychology for Language Learning, (2012): 58-73. Basingstoke, HA: Palgrave


Weiner, Bernard. “The Development of an Attribution-Based Theory of Motivation: A History

of Ideas.” Educational Psychologist 45, no. 1 (2010): 28-36.



As a parent raising a trilingual child I am aware that my son exposure to my native language (Italian) is mostly limited to the time I spend with him. As exposure to the language, i.e. language input, especially comprehensible input,  is one of the key determinants of first language acquisition, and few sources suggests that a child need at least 25 hours/week exposure to a language to learn it as a first language, it is useful to reflect on the total hours that one can spend with his child and how to maximise his exposure to the “target” language.

Here I will present few common strategies that parents raising multilingual children can use to increase the exposure to their language to their children

1. Verbalise what you are doing

Whatever you are doing, drawing, playing football, playing with Lego, you can verbalise what you are doing, in this way you will increase the amount of language exposure per hour spent together with your child.  Moreover, research showed that, whether your child is multilingual or not, speaking a lot to children supports their cognitive development and their language skills.

2. Tell stories and read books, especially in the evening

Telling stories and reading books is a useful strategy to increase the exposure to articulate language and to introduce a variety of situations and words that may not easily encountered in daily life. Books with a lot of drawings and pictures provide a convenient way to provide links between images and words. This is helpful as the human brain can memorise information better  when this is associated to images, a characteristic that is often used to create mnemonics.

3. Build a social circle of people from your home country

Building a social circle of expats/migrants from your native country can increase exposure to the target language and to its ties with a specific culture and way of living.

4. Do holidays in your native country

If one can afford the costs, having holidays in your home country is a useful additional strategy to reinforce your child’s acquisition of your native language. This is particularly important because it provides to the child evidence that knowledge of the language is not redundant but it is useful as there are places and people who can communicate only in that language.

5. Reflect on daily experiences before sleeping

Reflecting on what one has done during the day is a good way to reinforce the language input that the child received during the day.  Recalling and reviewing experiences will often also bring the repetition of new words used during the day and this can be helpful to help memory formation of this new knowledge.


In this post I like to share my experience in raising a child in a trilingual environment, i.e. the case when parents speak different languages and live in a country where a third language is spoken. In our case I am an Italian native speaker, my partner is a German native speaker and we live in UK.

My partner and I decided to speak our native languages to our son because we believe that this is a good thing for him. This strategy where each parents sticks to its native language is usually referred as “one person one language” or as “one parent one language”.


Raising multilingual children: The benefits

I believe that if you can raise a child in a serene multilingual environment he will benefit from his language abilities. In the last years few scientific studies have even pointed out that multilingual children have some cognitive advantages over monolingual children and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Two of my best friends have grown up in a trilingual environment and their language abilities are today a strong asset for them, both in their personal and professional life.


Children can handle it

Children are really language sponge and, if exposed within the first 3 years of life, they can learn any language at native-like level. Indeed, lot have been said and written about the linguistic genius of babies and their natural talent to learn languages. My personal experience is that, when naturally exposed to three languages, a child can handle them.

But there is a caveat.

Not all three languages are learnt at the same level or speed.

In our case our son dominant language is clearly German and this is clearly caused by the higher exposure he had to this language. He can understand me when I speak to him in Italian and sometimes he answers in Italian, but very often he answers in German.  This works for us because I understand and I can speak German. His English is at the moment his worst language simply because of the limited exposure he had by going one day a week in a nursery where everybody else is speaking English. In sum, the one factor that has a huge impact in how well and quick children learn a language is, similarly to what happens in second language acquisition among adults, the exposure to the language.


The most common problem: the children refuses to speak the minority language

One of the most common problems in raising a multilingual child is that the child may refuse to speak in the language that it is less used in the household. I think this happens if the child perceives that he doesn’t need that extra language because everyone can understand him when he speaks his other language/s.  In this case the solution is to create experiences and an environment where the benefit of knowing the minority language become clear, such as visiting the country where the language is spoken as first language, or inviting monolingual relatives or other children who speak the same minority language.


Comparing trilingual child development with monolingual child is like comparing orange with apple

I think it is also good to realise that comparing the vocabulary of a bi- or tri-lingual child with the development of a monolingual is an inadequate comparison. i.e. when people point out that a bilingual child knows less words in a language than a monolingual child of the same age, they do not realise that actually if you sum the words that the multilingual child, knows in any of his languages he actually probably knows as much or more words than the average monolingual child.

Moreover, the speed of language development is also highly influenced by how much children grow in a verbally rich environment and how much people interact with them verbally in a meaningful way. In other words, it may turn out that how much parents speak to their child, as opposed to for example living them in front of a TV, it is as much important for the speed of the verbal development, than the fact that the child is growing up in a multilingual environment.


My personal take on growing a multilingual child is that it is worth the extra effort that parents have to do and that children cope well with the task.



The Accidental Poetry of New English Speakers

This is a guest post by author Lisa Lieberman Doctor, I found it interesting and decided to post it, here it is:

When I switched careers from movie executive to writing teacher, I developed hundreds of writing exercises designed to allow authors access to their protagonist’s deep-seated emotional issues. It’s the internal issue that fuels the external story problem, so the exercises became a vital part of my teaching. Some of the exercises are, When have you grasped for hope, only to have it elude you? When has forgiveness brought you inner peace? Can you feel sorrow without collapsing under its weight? The questions touch upon the dark emotional colors of shame, anger, and fear, as well as the lighter colors of compassion and contentment. In order to get the full benefit of the exercises, I ask writers to respond in the first person voice of their protagonist without judgment or censorship.

My next directive for the writer is to take from the exercise that which they believe is relevant to their protagonist’s journey, and bring it into the text. Sometimes it’s an anecdote or a quote taken from the exercise, and at other times it’s a pervasive, troubling emotion based on a faulty belief system that has followed the character since childhood.

Because I’m a writing instructor and not a psychotherapist, I comment only on the character’s emotional journey, and not the writer’s. In the classroom or the workshop, the questions are asked only of the protagonist.

And then, something happened that I couldn’t have anticipated.

While teaching English grammar and usage to new English speakers at a university in Spain, I gave the exercises to my students, but this time the prompts were meant for them, and not for a character they were creating. The results were extraordinary! They loved revealing aspects of themselves in their own voice, and their language skills improved. In the very first session, they wrote stories from their lives and the feelings attached to those stories. One young man, concerned about the current economic woes in both his country and in his own home, wrote I see my life in red numbers. This, from a student who had only a basic vocabulary to work with. In that one sentence, we understand his despair about his worrisome situation. The other students in the room felt immediate empathy since they, too, struggled to not lose hope in the future. The camaraderie in the room was powerful. Not only did the student communicate in a language he was still learning, he also felt understood on a deep level.

Another student, musing about a love that couldn’t be fulfilled, wrote about the cruel dream of your kiss. He was nineteen years old and struggling with the pain of falling in love for the first time, with a young woman who preferred another partner over him. He read his work with passion and much to my delight, without embarrassment. The other students in the room applauded with appreciation when he finished reading.

A third student wrote, everything is black and I feel blue. There was no shame in this admission. It was how she was feeling at the time, a reflection on a recent break-up with her boyfriend. It was particularly thrilling for me as the instructor to recognize the extent to which these new speakers of English related to each other in a foreign language. I suspect that outside the classroom they were open with each other when they spoke in their native language, but they had never before communicated deeply in English.

I’m not suggesting that English be taught in a different way than the current ESL models. Rather, I’m offering a fun and rewarding new method to augment what’s traditionally taught in the classroom.


If you want to know more about Lisa Doctor’s work and her book “Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing” have a look to the her personal site.


For this post I created an infographic on the “language learning formula” that allows to learn a language effectively. This formula shows that motivation and opportunity are essential to learn a language, where opportunity is defined as the “time spent inthe language” multiplied by “the methods used to learn the language”. Time spent in the language is defined as time spent using the language (speaking, listening and writing) rather than time spent learning its grammar.

I believe that these are the 3 essential ingredients for effective language learning and combined can have a synergetic effect on learning.

The infographic can be shared and used in other websites following the creative common license described at the end of the post.

Creative Commons License
Infographic on language learning by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Photo from Auntie P

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Good Intentions and new year’s resolutions are typically forget as soon we realize that implementing them require a good amount of willing power, commitment and determination.

In this post I want to offer few advices inspired from research studies in human psychology that looked at what influences human decisions and behaviour.

A first powerful insight that can be used on our advantage is that people like to be consistent.

Therefore, the more evidence you have about a commitment made in  the past the more likely you are going to put the extra effort that is needed to stick with it. For example, writing down a goal has been showed to increase the likelihood to actually pursue and achieve that goal. A phenomenon that has been described as: “Writing is believing”.  Therefore, I suggest you write an accurate description of your goal of learning a language in 2013, including the level you wish to attain and the deadline to achieve this level, and that you sign this document and keep it as a record of your commitment.

Another way “to feel forced toward consistency” is to tell to the people of your social circle about your goal.

Also in this case it is important to be very specific, so that you are held accountable with yourself for a very specific result in a specific timeframe and less room for excuse is allowed. Once many people know about your goal, your need to be consistent will gave you some extra energy to keep your commitment alive.

Finally as explained in a previous post one could use “aversion loss” to his advantage

by investing money and resources in his objectives in order to feel obliged to pursue them. For example by buying a yearly subscription to a magazine in your target language or by buying a non-refundable expensive language course.

I hope that these tips will help you to transform your good intentions and new years resolutions in tangible results.




Photo from monojussi

Understanding human psychological biases can help a language learner to design an effective learning environment. This post is inspired by a book that I read recently “Nudges: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness”.  The book is basically discussing how to use humans’ psychological biases to improve decisions and policies. I want to take some of the ideas mentioned in this book and relate them to learning a language.

Here are some well-documented psychological biases:

  • Inertia or status quo: people tend to prefer the status quo (or default state) rather than change. Therefore the default state (or status quo) is usually left unchallenged.
  • Unrealistic optimism: people tend to be overoptimistic when they are assessing the probability of something happening to them. For example, many smokers know that there is realistic risk to get a cancer if you smoke regularly but still, when asked, they tend to underestimate the probability that this will happen to them.
  • Loss aversion: people “suffer” more from losing something they had than from not having something they never had.

How can you use these psychological biases to your advantage to learn a language?

  • Inertia: create default states that are helping you to learn your target language. In other words, create habits that promote your learning. For example, you could start to read every day after dinner a book in your target language. Or you could decide that every Sunday you see a movie in your target language.
  • Unrealistic optimism:  unrealistic optimism in language learning is found every time you think that you will magically learn the language with a small effort. Instead of being unrealistic challenge yourself to achieve clear goals within specific deadlines and find ways to get feedback on your progresses toward your goals. On the other hand use unrealistic optimism to support your belief that even if a language is supposed to be extremely difficult to learn you can do it.
  • Loss aversion: create situation where you have already invested precious resources to learn a language so that you will find it extremely unpleasant to quit learning. For example, pay in advance a year-long subscription to download audiobooks, once you have already paid for them you will certainly feel the obligation to use them.

It is my belief that being conscious of these biases can empower language learners and avoid some common pitfalls in their journey toward fluency.


Watching movies to learn. Photo by Adam Foster

In previous posts I made the point that movies can be useful tools for language learning and in particular I described how reciting movies can be used to improve speaking skills in the target language. In this post I want to describe another way to use movies to improve another aspect of learning a language: the ability to read.

DVD technology allows having the possibility to see the same DVD in many different languages and with subtitles as well in many different languages.

When we want to learn reading in our target language we want to be exposed to understandable text in our target language and read incrementally more difficult texts.  A way to get this type of exposure are parallel texts, in other words bilingual books where one can quickly check the meaning of words and sentences that he doesn’t understand.

Another way is to watch a movie in your native language with the subtitles in your target language. By doing this you will be exposed to text in your target language while this is translated in real time by the audio in the movie. This simple trick will provide you good exposure to text without needing to stop all the time to check words in a dictionary and it will provide a less frustrating way to start developing reading skills in your target language.

The main limitation with this method is that the dialogues of most movies are very simple when compared with literature. Therefore, when you have already developed medium reading skills you may want to reed books and newspaper rather than using this method.


learning curves for practical skills

It is few months that I don’t make any progress, I have reached a plateau”.

This is a classic sentence from a language learner, who is losing motivation to learn since he doesn’t see any progress.

The linear model of learning

One of the biggest assumptions made by people that are learning a new practical skill (elsewhere I wrote about the difference between practical skills and theoretical knowledge) is that our ability should grow linear with the time and effort that we are putting in to learn the target skill, which in our case is learning a language. This is what I will call here “the linear model of learning”.


The unlinear or plateau model of learning

Another model of learning, one that I became aware by reading Vera Birkenbihl books, is a model that takes in account of plateaus. According to this model when we are learning a new practical skill there are stages during which we learn linearly and other during which, even if we are practicing the skill and putting efforts to learn it, we seem stuck at the same level with no discernible progress. It has been said that the plateaus are somehow physiological as the brain (or other body parts) has to build new structures, networks, and connections. Basically infrastructures are needed before growth can continue.

If the linear model corresponds to reality than if people are not making progress it means that something has gone wrong, bad methods? bad memory? And so on.
If the plateau model is the right one than this means that we have to learn to appreciate also the stages of learning where we don’t see any apparent improvement because we know that it is part of the process. Giving up at this point would be very costly.  Someone said – probably V. Birkenbihl – that “we have to learn to love the plateau”.


I don’t like grammar. Actually I made a point about learning a language without studying the grammar or at least by dedicating to it a very small percentage of my learning time, as I believe that people can learn a lot of grammar without deliberately studying it but simply by exposure to what it is correct and what is not.

My choice of avoiding and limiting grammar has so far served me well in my journey to learn German.  I chose to learn German by doing activities that I enjoy and I could reach a good level of speaking, listening and reading skills.  Indeed I think that when learning a language is wise to start by focusing on listening and speaking, then later start reading and finally learn to write. However, at this point I am aware that my German writing skills are still quite poor and I definitely need to improve them, as I want to get a B2 certificate as soon as possible.

How does someone who doesn’t like grammar improve his writing skills in a foreign language?

I have asked myself the above question and I researched ways to learn writing that minimise the study of grammar. So far, the answer I came up is a combination of methods that are advocated by the Birkenbihl Method and by Luca Lampariello, a polyglot known for his language skills.

Basically when using this approach you should look at a language grammar as a code that you are decoding. This prospective follows the principle of learning by enjoying the pleasure of finding things out. According to this approach is also better to learn few things at time instead than studying all the grammar rules at once and then trying to apply them.

To decode the language you can do the following activities:

Translation and back translation

Translate sentences from the foreign language to your native language and viceversa. Delayed back translation, translating your translation back in the target language, can be particularly useful when we don’t have somebody that can correct our mistakes in the target language.

While going through this process of translation you can create bilingual texts and compare the structure of the two languages to help you decode how one language translates into the other. By doing this you should be able to figure out several grammar rules on your own. However, when you feel that some rule is particularly complicate (for example declinations) to extrapolate you can have a look into the grammar book. You should try to add rules incrementally, i.e. you should learn one or only few rules at time and them verify and internalize them through deliberate practice.

Writing letters

The other method that I am using is to write letters and then to get them corrected in a way that I can improve from understanding my mistakes.

Reading to decode

I also read books and analyse them accurately according to what I already know, in other world I verify the rules I have learned through the decoding process or by reading the grammar book.  This is a completely different way of reading as reading because you are interested in the content of the book, in this case you are only interested to understand the rules of the language.

I would be very interested to hear from other people what works well for them to learn writing a foreign language,



Reciting movies to learn a language

In this post I introduce a technique I am using to learn German while looking movies. The technique forces me to be less passive than when looking a movie just for entertainment. Why do I want to force me to be less passive? Well,  as I explained in previous posts active learning can help people to learn faster and better because our memory records and recalls information better when we actively engages with it.

The technique is very simple: the learner watches the movie in the target language and try to repeat actors’ lines. When the speed of the speech is too high for the learner’s level, the learner can pause and rewind as many times as needed. The very simple act of reciting will help the learner in many aspect of language learning: building sentences correctly, intonation, pronunciation, learning common informal expression for many different situations (you have to choose the right movies!).

To make learning more effective the learner can recite the same lines several times and vary the speed, the intonation, and the volume.  It is seems that we are better designed to record information when is presented in different ways and contrasted and compared with other information. That is why a lecture where the lecturer maintains the same tone of voice all the time would be more boring and less effective than a lecture where the lecturer modulate the tone differently and give different emphasis to different points. In other words, some peaks and valleys make a speech more memorable than a flat tone.

One simple reason why reciting movies’ lines can help you to learn faster than just looking passively the same movie is that when we engage actively with some information we are forced to give it more attention. Indeed, right now I can follow the plot of many movies in German but when I try to repeat actors’ lines I discover that there are many lines that my ears cannot catch and/or that I don’t understand. Why this discrepancy? One reason is that our brain is really good at filling up holes, or connecting the dots when some information is missing. Indeed, many memories of our past are not the exact record of what happened in the past but a reconstruction that our brain made by filling up some “holes” in the records.

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When I was a child my parents bought a table game called “travels in Europe”. The players had to travel through the map and to answer some geography questions to advance and travel more. My parents probably bought the game because they understood the principle of incidental learning.

What is incidental learning? (or accidental learning)

Incidental is defined in the dictionary as “occurring as a minor accompaniment” or “occurring by chance in connection with something else”. Therefore, incidental learning is learning that occurs as the by-product of another activity. In the case of my example it was the side-effect of playing a game.

We can then distinguish incidental learning from deliberate learning. The latter takes place when we conduct an activity with the specific aim to learn something. So, learning European geography by reading a geography textbook would be deliberate learning while learning it by playing a table game would be incidental learning.

While learning a language is useful to know the difference between incidental and deliberate learning because it allows us to strategically plan our learning. I personally think that both can be useful and much depends also by what is the level of the language learner. However, I tend to use much more incidental learning because by doing so I learn German while watching an exciting movie, reading an interesting book, speaking with my girlfriend and so on.  However, deliberate learning can be particular useful when we want to address a specific issue. For example, if I realise that there is a tense that I tend to use wrongly than I may decide to look on the grammar book and read what is the rule for that tense.

In sum, try to think of as many as possible incidental learning strategies to learn your target language and you will be a bit closer to your goal of learning a language.


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I recently stumbled upon an academic article on how reading books fosters language development around the world.  In the article the authors list the ideal environment to foster language acquisition in Children, or in the words of the authors the ideal “environmental support for language learning”, these are:

  1. Children need to hear many words often
  2. Children learn words when they are interested
  3. Children learn best when adults are responsive to them
  4. Words are learned when meaning are made clear
  5. Vocabulary and grammar are learned together
  6. Keep it positive

I found really interesting that this type of environment is actually also the ideal one for an adult language learner. [click to continue…]


Principles of learning and memory: meaning

Psychologists recognize several principles the can help learning and an efficient use of memory. Among these principles the following seem to be particularly significant:

  • Meaning
  • Organization
  • Association
  • Visualization
  • Attention

In this post I want to focus on the role that Meaning has on learning and memorization. Why when we have to chose a password or a secret code we often end up using a familiar birth date? Simply because the birth date has a meaning for us and it is therefore easier to memorize and later to recall for use than a random sequence of numbers. If meaning can help us to retain information what can we do when we want to learn something that is, at least apparently, meaningless? [click to continue…]

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One of the key factors to learn something is to believe that you can learn it. Unfortunately, there is a widespread assumptions that in many domains talent is essential to become successful.

in this post I try to answer the following questions: Is intelligence genetically determined or can be learned? How this relates to (second) language acquisition?

[click to continue…]


As children we learn our native language without studying grammar (Sure, later at school we are forced to learn grammar but this happens when we are already fluent). We speak the language in a way that (mostly) follows grammar rules without knowing them, how is this possible?

how is possible that we learn grammar without studying it? Read More

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Currently, one of the most debated topic in the on-line language-learning community is the amount of time that is necessary to learn a language “fluently”. The debate was partly stimulated by one of the most popular blog on language learning where Benny, the author of this blog, is now trying to learn chinese in three months.


Much of the debate is focusing on the definition of “fluency” but for what concern this blog post I will assume that there is a shared understanding of what fluency is. Moreover, I want to stress that a plurality of opinions and debates around a theme are always very welcome and, as long as comments and opinions are constructive and people do not get too much attached to their opinion, debates can be useful.


Limiting belief

Certainly limiting beliefs regarding the ability to learn languages are very common and in many cases they are the real reason why some people “are not good at learning languages”. It is the classic self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces itself. Therefore, showing that one can learn many languages in a relatively short period of time can provide a useful service by sprouting doubts on the limiting beliefs that hold back many people from learning a language. On the other side people with the expectation to learn fast would hit a wall when after few months they realise that “it takes more time that I thought”.


Factors that influence language acquisition

My own experience tells me that the speed of learning a language can be greatly influenced by the methodological approach used, by previous experience on learning languages, by the environment, and by motivation. People with previous successful experiences in learning a language will already have developed some learning skills and would certainly have an head start. Learners that are highly exposed to the language will also more likely learn faster. Finally, it is obvious that languages that are more similar to our own native language, or to other languages that we already master, will be easier to learn. Therefore, it is possible that people in a different environment, with different approaches, motivation and experience may have very different learning rates.


Physiological time

However, I also think that the process of learning a language is a process of enskillment, similar to the process of learning to play piano rather than a theoretical subject such as history. This process of enskillment requires the internalisation of the language in a way that this knowledge becomes unconscious, similarly to the way a piano player ability, by mean of constant practice, get embedded in his own hands which seems to acquire their own memory. Independently by how good is our approach, motivation and experience this process of internalisation requires some physiological time. It make sense, as during these process new connections are formed in our neural system and new patterns are established.


Learn as efficient as you can rather than fast

As a consequence, I think that is possible and recommendable to learn languages very efficiently rather than fast. Here “efficiently” means that you actively learn in the best way you can, so that you maximize your learning per unit of time.

I think that two key factors of successful language learning are the motivation and the commitment to learn for a long-term period and to practice the language daily as a piano player would practice daily because he/she enjoys doing it. It is a conscious decision to invest time in something that is believed to be valuable. There is no free lunch, if you want to acquire the skill you have to invest some time and energy.



My 3 most important language-learning strategies of 2011

In this post I want to share the 3 most important strategies I learned in 2011 about language learning. I learned to value these strategies because I empirically tested them and found that they have improved substantially my learning process. I think these are strategies that can be useful to any language learner.



1: Take time to learn about learning

If you want to learn a language, investing time to explore and discover different approaches and learning strategies will pay in the long-term. Learning a language is a journey and it is a journey that requires a certain amount of commitment in terms of motivation, discipline and time. Certainly the time I devoted to learn and experiment new ways to learn languages have payed off. My own learning process has evolved continuously throughout the year and I believe my learner-toolkit will be useful again in the future and not only to learn new languages.


2: Learn first how it sounds and later how it is written

In the last months, I gradually shifted most of my focus on listening and speaking the target language rather than reading texts. This change came with the realisation that to learn the correct pronunciation of a language is better to learn before how new words sound and only later how they are written. Why? Because if you know how a word is written you would tend to pronunce it like if you were reading it loud in your own native language. Therefore, while at the beginning of 2011 I was using a lot flashcards to learn new words, I now learn first how new words sound by focusing on audiobooks, audioplays, and movies in the target language (I do use a lot the pause and rewind buttons).


3: Active learning costs more effort but pays off

Active learning is any type of learning strategies during which the learner is actively engaged with the learning material. During this year I used several strategies that involved active learning: improvisation theatre in the target language with a friend who is a native speaker, recalling flashcards to learn new words, listening audiobooks and watching movies in the target language and trying to repeat loudly their content and dialogues. In my opinion the more actively we are engaged with learning material the more efficient is the learning process.

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Photo by Ky Olsen

And if we could learn a foreign language like we learnt our mother tongue?

Surely, many of us have thought this while facing the challenge of learning a foreign language. Surely, there is something useful in understanding and analysing how children learn a language without going to a language school.


Now the question I try to address in this post is: what should come before in foreign language acquisition, listening or reading?


Input-output and language acquisition

In the language learning community a common debate focus on whether is better, at the beginner stage of language learning, to concentrate efforts only on input (reading and listening) or if a mix of input and output (writing and speaking) are more effective.


However it is also relevant to ask: what type of input is better at the beginner stage? Listening or reading? And what are the advantages and the disadvantages of focusing on the first or on the second?


While much of the traditional approach to language learning has focused on learning grammar and using texts as major sources of input, now it is also possible to find commercial language learning software and packages that focus mostly on audio input at the beginner stage. The idea behind is to learn a language like children learn their mother tongue. Indeed children learn first to understand and to speak and later to read and write.



Different types of input engage different senses and develop different abilities

If we are learning a language by scratch from a text, disjointed form their pronunciation, we would likely apply the phonetic rules of our native languages to the new target language. In other words, we are reading and learning the target language with a foreign accent. It is important to point out that, when we read a text, our mind spells in our heads the words we are reading.


If we start learning a language by focusing only on audio input we are forced to listen carefully to what we hear, we sharpen our ability to discern different sounds, and we learn new words from their sounds rather than their spelling. The advantage is that we are more likely to develop a better pronunciation. The disadvantage is that much of the input will not be comprehensible which ultimately can slow down the learning process.


A third possibility is to learn the language by listening audio and, at the same time, following on a text in the same language. The listening-reading method that I previously discussed in this blog. This method has the advantage of exposing the learner to a large amount of comprehensible input, which seems to be essential for effective language learning.

A variation of this method is to listen the target language and to follow the story on the text in our native language. This would allow the learner to learn the pronunciation of the new words without being affected by how the word is written. However, there is the risk that this method could make harder to shift to the stage when the learner can think in the target language without translating his thoughts from his native language to the target language.


In the past, I always started to learn languages by using texts and I never realised that there are different strategies with different results that can be applied at the very beginning of the learning journey. I now realised that more emphasis on audio material, when learning a language, can be an important ally to learn the correct pronunciation (see my pronunciation app for Italian sounds). I think that any learner should decide what type of input he/she would like to give more emphasis. It is important to be aware of the different possibilities and of the different effects that this choice can have on our learning process.



Photo by Irmeli Aro

You are reading a book and you start thinking about what are you going to eat for dinner, you are writing a letter and you start checking your e-mail, you are cooking and you start thinking about the book you were reading.

In a world full of multimedia gadget, sms, e-mail, twitter, distractions are always around the corner and multi-tasking is often praised as the ability to perform more tasks at the same time.

But what are the consequence on our ability to carry out well a task if we start thinking or doing other tasks instead than maintain our focus?

Multi-tasking comes with a price: you will be less effective in what you are doing because your energy and focus are not aligned.

One solution is to practice as much as possible mindfulness when conducting a task.

Mindfulness has been defined as “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68).

Mindfulness can powerfully enhance our performance; indeed many athletes exercise mindfulness as part of their training. If you are learning something new, you want to listen mindfully, you want to practice mindfully, you want to absorb the new information and the new skills as efficiently as possible.

Similarly, mindfulness can enhance your performance as a language learner. One hour learning your target language mindfully has much more weight than one hour learning the language while browsing internet and thinking about your holidays.

The only caveat is that is not simple, we are too used to distractions and interruptions; we look for them because focusing on one single task requires, ironically, more effort. A solution is to practice mindfulness when learning by deciding to re-focus on our main task anytime we realize our attention has drifted away. Constant practice will improve our ability to maintain our focus and improve our ability to learn.



Investing in discomfort

Photo by MrsEds

Few days ago I was invited to a dinner and I started to chat with a guest. He was German and we started the conversation in German but it was obvious that, even if I could understand about 70% of what he was saying, I had also to struggle a bit. He suggested that we switched to English, but I replied that I was very glad to speak German. Of course switching the conversation to English would have made things much easier for both but I decided to invest in discomfort.



What are comfort and discomfort?

We feel comfort when we practice something that is within our range of acquired skills and that is already embedded in ourselves. At the contrary, we feel discomfort anytime we carry out activities outside of our current ability or expertise, when we engage in something new or different from what we know well.


Because discomfort is by definition uncomfortable we tend to avoid it but if you want to learn a new skill, like a foreign language, you should invest in discomfort.


There is no free-lunch

Why should you invest in discomfort? Simply because there is no free-lunch. If you want to learn a new skill, this does not come as easily as downloading an attachment from your e-mail. Learning a new skill comes with a cost, and the cost is the discomfort that you have to go through while practicing it and learning it. But that cost is actually an investment that in the long-term will pay off.


When we want to learn a language we are investing in discomfort every time:


  • We speak in our target language even if we could easily communicate  in another language


  • We look at a movie in an original language when we could see the dubbed version and we end up understanding only half of it


  • We read a book in the target language instead than in our native language and it takes us much more time to finish it


Investing in discomfort is a key element of learning a new skill like a language because to learn and to improve we need to engage ourselves at a level that is slightly higher than our current level. If we train ourselves only at our current level we will not improve, we will just maintain our current level of “enskillment”.


You can be friend with discomfort

Because investing in discomfort is such an important part of the learner toolbox we should learn to be friends with discomfort. I think the trick is to look at discomfort as part of a learning process. This basically means that if, for example, I don’t understand some bits of a conversation, I know that this is not the end of the world and that this is part of the learning process. The shift here is from seeing a conversation in your target language only as the information that is communicated or as part of a learning process which can include some discomfort.




The secret to learn German? Forget about the declinations!

Photo by Robby van Moor

 The plot goes along these lines: Years of German classes at school, painful hours spent learning declinations tables by heart, lot of frustration, and after all this pain not even being able to have a conversation with a German person.

It is a common plot, and I think the way to avoid the sad end it is very simple: do you want to learn German? Forget about learning the declinations!


In this post I argue that if you want to learn a complex skill, in this case German, you should start by focusing first on the most basic and essential aspects of the skill, and only once you have mastered the basics you can refine your skill.


Learning a complex skill like German by focusing from the very beginning on things such as declinations is the equivalent of starting to think about the furniture for your house when you are still laying its foundations.

By focusing on the wrong things you risk to waste a lot of time that you can use to learn well the basics of your target language. Even worst,  starting from the most complicate and difficult aspects of your target language will paralyse you and lower your learning-momentum (that kind of enthusiasm when we think that we can learn and do anything) which is very important to drive learning.

Some people argue that when you are learning something new you should learn everything perfectly from the very beginning in order to avoid creating bad habits that are difficult to eliminate later. While I find this theoretically interesting at a practical level I find that this has the effect of paralysing the learning process or at least to slow it down.

At the contrary, starting from the basics will create momentum . The most difficult part in the process of learning something new is not keeping going but it is winning the initial attrition and start moving.



When comes to German this translates to a very simple advice: ignore complex rules and focus on learning the most basic things this will allow you to start communicating and understanding (initiate movement), then add gradually incrementally difficult things to learn (keep moving) , but only when the simple stuff is already taken care of and it feels sort of automatic. This means that you should start thinking about declinations only when you can already speaking and understanding with no effort. Starting from the most basic aspects of German and just ignoring declinations has helped me a lot. It allowed me to start speaking without worrying too much about getting everything right from the beginning and, by doing so, it gave more chances to practice the language.



Photo by Beverlyislike

Many people in the language-learning community argue that looking movies is a good way to learn languages. Of course almost everybody like the idea of learning a language by looking a movie but then, when you try, you may find that most of the conversations in movies are really difficult to understand, if you are not at a very advanced level of your target language.


One of the points that most of language bloggers make is that to learn a language you should get maximum exposure to comprehensible content (technically named comprehensible input) in your target language. But unfortunately looking a movie is often exposure to incomprehensible content which is of very little help to learn a language.  


The classic way around to this problem is to watch movies in your target language with subtitles in your native language. I personally don’t like this method that much because often the subtitles say something quite different that the audio and they also distract me from the movie.


How to get around incomprehensible content in movies

Two days ago I was on a long-distance flight and I realised that there is a more efficient way to use movies to learn languages. It is very simple, you should just look movies that you have already seen once in your native language, possibly movies that you really like, even better one of your favourite movies.

Why so? Simply because when you look a movie for the second time in your target language you already know the story and most of the incomprehensible content will become comprehensible content. It is like reading a book with parallel text in two languages.


Using one of your favourite movies to learn a language is even better. First, you are probably more willing to see it again. Second, you may have already seen it several times and know very well the plot and the dialogues in it.     


….and of course do avoid action movies, they may be easier to understand but it is because there are not enough dialogues, which are essential if you want to learn a language.



Photo by S Siddy

Photo by S. Siddy
In a previous post I explained the reading-listening method that consists in reading a book while listening its audiobook version. As an alternative I found very useful to use free on-line content that is available both in audio version and in text version.

For example, I found that both audio and text versions of Grimm’s brother fairy tales are freely available in German. The problem is that after a while I got bored of fairy tales. Another alternative that I found to apply the reading-listening method to learn German, while using interesting content, it is to use the content available on the on-line radio . The advantage is that this radio provides also the full transcript of every program.

6 simple steps to create content for the reading-listening method to learn a language

  • I find an interesting article
  • I download the audio version in German
  • I create a new word document with an empty table with 2 columns and only 1 row
  • I copy the text of the german program in the first column
  • I use google translate to translate in English the text of the German program and I copy the translation in the second comlumn of the table in the word document
  • I align the text in the two columns

By following these steps you can quickly create parallel texts that can be followed while listening the audio version of the radio program in German. Electronic parallel texts are really useful because you can use colours to highlight corresponding sentences, or words, in the two languages so that it is easier to follow the text and understand it while you are listening it.

As mentioned, the great things about using this method are that it provides you with a lot of exposure to comprehensible and interesting input and that you can create your own archive of material that you can revise then at optimal intervals.


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Photo by sophiea

In this post I am going to explain why learning a language is similar to forming a new habit and why you should never stop learning until you have reached fluency.

It is easier to lose an habit than to create one
If you are a runner you know that once you stop running you lose your training very fast. What it took three months to build up you can lose it in one month without training and, what is worst, when you re-start training it will take you again three months of training to reach the same condition you had before you stopped running. In other words, it is easier to lose your condition than to build it up and it is also easier to maintain your training than to build it up from scratch. That is why every person who runs regularly (or practices some other kind of sport) fears injuries.

It is easy to forget new knowledge
After few weeks that I am not practicing German I am noticing that I am loosing fast some of the knowledge I gained in the last months. It seems to me that something similar to what happens for physical condition may happen when we stop for a while to learn a language. In other words, we may forget faster than we learn. Why so?

Forming new habits and learning a language
I think this has something to do with the fact that learning a language, like gaining physical condition, is like forming a new habit and to form a new habit we have to go through a period when old habits (whether these are body habits or mind habits) are melted in order to allow space for the new ones. When you run new muscle fibres will form. When you learn a language new connections in your brain will be formed. This period of transition is crucial for the formation of the new habit and it is also the worst moment to stop learning because the new habit (the target language, or the physical condition) is still not “solidified”.

It is easier to maintain than to re-start from scratch. i.e. Do not stop learning before you reach fluency
It follows that the most efficient way to learn a language is to avoid gaps in your learning period before you reached fluency and probably even a while after that. Otherwise you risk losing months of work in relatively little time. If you need to slow down with your language training, do at least the minimum work to maintain your level as it is.

Fortunately, once you have achieved fluency in your target language, and you have practiced it extensively for a while, “black-out periods”, where you do not use the language, will not be as harmful as during the initial learning period.



The principle of effect applied to learning a language

Photo by Tray

The law of effect states that if the responses to an action produce a somehow pleasant or satisfying feeling we are more likely to repeat the same action in the future when we are in a similar context. In other words, actions that produce a pleasant effect in a specific context are more likely to occur again.

For example, If I am hungry I may look for a restaurant. If I decide to try a new restaurant for the first time and I am lucky enough to eat delicious food then it is obviously more likely that I will go back to this restaurant next time I will be in the same area and hungry. This happens because I created a positive association between eating in that restaurant and the feeling that this action produces (in this case taste). This is an example of the law of the effect that relates how we feel after taking a specific action to the likelihood to repeat the same action in the future.

The law of effect and learning

The law of effect has obvious implications for learning. We can use the principle behind the law of effect to condition ourselves to learn new things such as a language. All we have to do is to create a satisfying feeling linked to the action of learning our target language. This is what is also known as “positive reinforcement”.

An effective learner is often someone that has figured out ways to produce satisfying feelings from its learning experiences and that, because of this, has the motivation to consistently pursue its learning objective.

Learning strategies adapted to individual differences

The law of effect also explains why there is no such a thing as the best method to learn a language or anything else. Because we are all different we also respond differently to different situations and that is why we should look for learning strategies that fit us. In other words some of us may have a positive association with learning Italian if they are eating Italian food after or while studying the target language. But if you don’t like Italian food you should obviously think of another setting to learn Italian.

This is why for example I used improvisation theatre to learn German. This activity is just really funny for me and after every session I am very keen to learn more German.

This is also why if your learning strategy turns out to be boring or unpleasant you should change it before you build a long lasting negative association with your target language.

So when you are starting to learn a new skill try to think “how can I associate a positive feeling to this activity?”



An house in the Amazon

In these weeks I am conducting field research in indigenous villages in the Amazon and, while I am not aiming to get fluent in the local indigenous language (I am working with bilingual translators and my research is short-term) I am very aware that any population appreciates when foreigners make some effort to learn few basic sentences in their own language and, by doing so, show genuine interest in their own culture.

In this post I try to answer the following question: how can we gain quickly some basic knowledge in an unwritten language?

Many of the methods discussed in the language community to learn languages assume that one is learning a written language. However, there are many unwritten indigenous languages in the world where no written resource is available to study and learn the target language.
Only in South Americas indigenous people speak more than 300 different languages and transmit their knowledge orally. For many of these languages the only written text is the Bible that has been translated in many otherwise unwritten languages by missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

To get around the lack of written material on my target language I wrote in Spanish a list of sentences or short expressions that I wanted to learn. These were simple sentences, such as “Good morning”, “Thanks for the food”, “See you later” and “can I buy a coconut?” (my favourite drink is coconut water). Then, I asked one of my indigenous assistant to speak loud these sentences while I was recording with my voice recorder. Now I can use the audio file to revise the recorded sentences at optimal intervals to avoid forgetting them and to learn them as quick as I can.
Hopefully I would be soon able to buy coconuts using the native language!


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In this post I will explain how learning German has helped me to learn to identify medicinal plants used in the Amazon. These are apparently two unrelated skills but here I want to show how the principles of learning can be relevant in different fields such as botany and languages.

Many believe that with the increasing access to information schools should change their traditional role of transmitting information and instead they should teach students how to learn. By doing so schools will empower students to go on and learn by themselves whatever they are interested in by accessing freely available information.

Learning a language can be very useful to learn how to learn because a lot of the principles that are valid to learn a language can be applied to many other fields. Many of the posts that I have previously written deal with some aspect of learning that can be applied not only to languages but in many other fields. For example, in the last post I explained how the probability that we forget new information is related to its repetition. In another post I explained the difference between knowledge and skills and why this matters. In one of the first posts I explained how motivation is crucial in learning.

Let me give you a practical example, in the last weeks I wanted to learn to recognize the most common medicinal plants growing in the Amazon because I will do some field research in this area. I soon realised that I could apply spaced repetition of flashcards that have the images of the plants on one side and the name of the species on the other, similarly for what I have done to learn new German words.

It was relatively easy to find images of the plant species in internet and then use them on Anki, the software that creates flashcards and shows them just at the right time to avoid forgetting the new information. Furthermore, when I found difficult to learn the Latin name of a species I used striking mental associations as I did in the past to learn new German words.

These methods worked well and after few weeks I am now familiar with many medicinal plant species,  which will be a considerable advantage when conducting field research.

Learning a language is, of course, a long-term investment, but I think that this investment pays off in many different ways. The more you are successful in learning a language the more you are likely to have learned how to learn and the more you will be able to learn new skills in the future when you decide so. From this viewpoint learning a language can be empowering because it can liberate our ability to learn and create new thirst for knowledge.



The Forgetting Curve

Forgetting: A common experience

It is the beginning of the summer, you are sitting on your chair staring the questions on your exam sheet and you realise that you have forgotten all the information that you have frantically read in the last week. “How is this possible? Will I have to stay in high school another year” you ask yourself.

A lot of people can relate to similar moments in their life where they realise that something they studied or read or listened is suddenly vanished from their head. The reason why this happens is that people forget about The Forgetting Curve, or they do not even know about it.

What is it the forgetting curve?

The forgetting curve is a graphic illustration that shows the decline of memory retention during time. In other words the forgetting curve is a graphic way to express the concept that new information is often rapidly lost (forgot) when it is not repeated.

One way to retain new information in-spite of the forgetting curve is to a) repeat information at optimal time intervals; b) to use efficient mnemonic techniques. For example in an older post I described as I use stories to learn new words in a language.

Repeat information at optimal time intervals

There is some evidence that the forgetting curve becomes less steep when the new information is repeated and so the optimal time for repetition extend after every repetition. So, for example, if we want to learn a new word in a language we should be exposed to this word very soon after the first exposure (second exposure or repetition). Then we should repeat the word after increasing longer periods of time. This is called space repetition and allows moving information from our short memory to our long-term memory.

How can we use spaced repetition to learn a new language?

Once we know that spaced repetition is important for acquiring new information we can use it to learn more efficiently. For example, when we read books to learn a language a good practice would be to read the book twice in the shortest period of time and then read it again after few days and after few weeks (of course the book should be something we are interested in otherwise repetition would be boring and if something is boring then it will not stick into your brain). Doing so, the possibility to remember the new words in the book will be higher.

Using games that somehow rehearse, or react, new information are also a wonderful way to repeat new information.

If you are singing German songs to learn German, do not change continuously the songs, build a repertoire and repeat them at spaced intervals.

Software like Anki, a flashcard system, uses an algorithm that is based on the concept of spaced repletion and shows the same flashcard at increasing periods of time. I am using this software to learn new words in German but also to learn the Latin name of plants (by using flashcards with photos’ of the plant on one side and the plant’s name on the other side). I also used anki to create a deck of audio flashcards to teach Italian pronunciation that can be bought on-line for the price of sandwich.

So do not forget about repeating what have you learned and leave increasing time between repetitions.



Living abroad. Photo by auswandern-Malaysia

Few months ago I stumbled upon a research paper that discussed the relationship between living abroad and creativity. The authors suggest that somehow living abroad may increase your creativity. Why so?

Living abroad and creativity

If you think about it, it does make sense. When we live abroad we come in contact with another culture and therefore with another way of thinking than the one we were socialised. This exposure and adaptation to a new way of thinking and behaving is likely to relax the rigidity of our brains and to increase the ability to consider different viewpoints and different ways to interpret the same reality.

When you live in a different culture you have to re-learn how to behave in a culturally-appropriate manner. For example, people in different cultures have different way to greet each other when they meet or to shake their hands. The latter can range from a very vigorous handshake to a very light one. By going through this process of re-learning and re-socialisation you realise that there are many possible ways to look at things.

Language, culture  and thought

One important aspect of living abroad is that one has the motivation and the opportunity to learn a new language. There is a well known debate on how much language influences thought or how much is the type of culture (and then thought) that influences language. According to linguistic relativism the language we use is the lens through which we see reality.

American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir claims:

The real world is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The world in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached(Sapir 1958).

At the contrary a classic example of how languages can be shaped by our worldview and reflect a different perception of the environment is the many different terms that inuit have for snow such as: aput (now on the ground), qana (falling snow),  piqsirpoq (drifting) snow. An aspect of inuit culture popularised by the book and movie Smilla’s sense for snow.

Learning a “difficult” language is the perfect training for your mind

In my own experience learning German is a challenge especially because to learn it you have to train your mind to think different. For example, in some sentences the verb goes to the end. This structure is very unfamiliar for a person that speaks English, or Spanish or French, or Italian. Ultimately, what makes German so difficult for me, it is different grammar structure relatively to my mother tongue, makes also German an extremely valuable training for my mind. Indeed, as a consequence of learning this new way of organising my thoughts, I and my subconscious will also acknowledge that I can say the same think in several ways, that I can see the world in different ways, and this ability to see the world through different lenses is certainly linked to creativity.



Photo by Pirana Snaps

One of the most common errors when people want to learn a new skill such as speaking a language is to focus too much on theoretical knowledge rather than on methods to acquire the skill. That is often why people tend to not clearly differentiate between these two aspects of learning.

For example, think about a person who can craft very fine ceramic pottery and a person who knows a lot about the different techniques of pottery but has never done one himself. These two persons have very different abilities. One has skills that are embedded in how he moves the hands while doing the pottery, the pressures and the movement that he applies to the material and the internal feeling that he acquired for this gestures. The other person knows a lot about pottery making and can probably distinguish valuable pottery for cheap one but he would not be able to produce a valuable one himself.

Applying the minimum dose concept to language learning

I think that a good approach is to learn a minimum dose of related theoretical knowledge (grammar in this case) and then practice the target skill (speak in this case, or other exercises). The minimum dose in medicine refers to “the smallest dose of a medicine or drug that will produce an effect”. Similarly, when we learn a language the minimum dose of grammar is the quantity of knowledge that we need to gradually and incrementally improve and practice our ability to read, speak and understand.

Once we achieve the ability to transfer that initial piece of the theoretical knowledge into a skill we can add a new piece of theoretical knowledge and then practice it as a skill again. That is why learning by doing is such a powerful way to learn skills. Because you are forced to practice the skill from the beginning before you acquire too much theoretical knowledge.

Language schools are often very ineffective because they focus much more on theoretical knowledge rather than skills assuming somehow that once one has theoretical knowledge about a subject the skill will follow naturally.



Photo by windygig

Creative ideas are ideas that somehow fall outside the norm and the usual patterns of the mind. In this post I will describe a technique used to generate creative ideas and apply it to learning languages but it can be applied to find creative solutions to any kind of problem.
Author Edward de Bono in his book “Lateral thinking” suggests that one way to break the usual patterns of the mind is to use a random stimulus. A random word taken from a dictionary or a book could well serve this goal.

Step one: generate a random word

When I am working on my laptop I use an on-line website that generates random words or sentences to create a random stimulus. For example, I just run the random word generator and the output was the word “feeling”.

Now the next steps are to think few definitions of the word “feeling” and then try to relate them to your problem or question which in our case is “how can I learn languages creatively?”.

Step two: write a definition of the random word

So for example two definitions of feeling could be:

  1. An inner state that relates to some experience
  2. Refer to subjective sensations

Step three: relate your definition(s) to your problem

As mentioned above, now that you have a definition to the random word “feeling” you can relate it to your question. So how “an inner state that relates to some experience” can be linked to learning languages? Well one could suggest, for example, that there are inner states that are more likely to accept new information than other ones and one could investigate all the optimal conditions for learning a new language. It is likely that a feeling of openness and acceptance could lead to higher ability to learn. One could then look for ways to create these states of mind before studying or practicing the language. For example one could listen some music that re-creates these states of mind or feelings.



Thinking laterally. Photo by Rose-Zhang.

Lateral thinking is a term created by Author Edward de Bono to describe a way of thinking that promotes creativity.

Lateral thinking consists in solving a problem by using and generating as many solutions as possible instead than just the first obvious solution. By creating many alternative solutions, or possibilities, one is more likely to create innovative and creative ideas because he is less constrained by the “habitual patterns of the mind” which usually tend to reinforce themselves.

In other words, people creativity is limited by the tendency to stop looking for ideas and possibilities once they have found a first solution for a problem, which is usually the easiest and most familiar solutions a problem.

How can we apply lateral thinking to learn languages?

One of the methods the De Bono use to think laterally is to decide to look for a specific quota of solutions for a problem independently if a solution is found or not. For example let’s say I decided to set a quota of ten solutions to the problem “how can I learn to speak Chinese?” Then ten solutions that then came to my mind in chronological order are

• Going to china
• Going to a language course
• Meeting Chinese migrants living in my area
• Making a language interchange with Chinese people living in my area
• Speaking with Chinese people on skype
• Looking Chinese movies, learn the script and re-act them
• Singing Chinese songs
• Working in a Chinese restaurant
• Reading Chinese books
• Doing a degree in China

As you see from this list above if I was looking for only one solution (vertical thinking) I would have stopped at the first or second solutions, going to the country of your target language or going to a language course which, indeed, are some of the most common solutions that people employ when trying to learn a language. Other unconventional ideas and solutions such as re-acting Chinese movies or working in a Chinese restaurant would have not come up.

To sum up if you force yourself to look for more solutions to a problem rather then stopping your search when you find the first solution you are more likely to find creative and innovative ideas. If you want to learn a language try to think at all the different ways you could do it rather than just going to a language course and stopping to look for other solutions. You may find that are other ways to learn that may work better for you.



The Rosetta Stone, photo by Elisabeth Beers

The Rosetta Stone is, as the name suggests, a stone inscribed with the same text in three different languages: Ancient Egyptian, Demotic (Another form of Egyptian), and Ancient Greek.

Researchers used the trilingual text in the Rosetta Stone as a key to understand Egyptian Hyeroglyphs. The principle used is simple: a known text is used to learn an unknown language.

The same principle can be used today to learn languages. Indeed, bilingual books are using exactly this principle.

How this can be applied to learn many languages and become a polyglot?

In a previous post I explained how to improve reading and listening skills in your target language by reading a book first in your native language and then in your target language while listening at the same time at its audiobook version  (The R-L method). This method can be applied to learn many languages by choosing a book whose text and audio versions are available in many different languages.

For example, Harry Potter has been translated in a lot of languages and its audiobook versions are also available in many languages. If you learn a language, let’s say German, by reading and listening Harry Potter, you will become very familiar with its plot. If one year later you want to start learning Portuguese you could use the Portuguese version of Harry Potter (book and audio) as a learning material. In other words, Harry Potter, o whatever the text you have chosen, will become your Rosetta Stone for languages.

The principle is that once you are very familiar with the content of a book is much easier to read and listen its translation in your target language which ultimately would allow you to increase the amount of exposure to the new language.



Obliquity. Photo by bartb_pt (Flickr)

The method I explain in this post can be applied only if you leave in a country where people speak the language you want to learn.

In a recently published book Author John Kay argues that goals are often best achieved indirectly. Similarly, I think that we can often learn a foreign language more effectively while we are doing something apparently unrelated to study the language itself. The trick is, of course, to use the foreign language to carry out activities which we find anyway interesting and stimulating.

For example, in a previous post I described how I use improvisation theatre to learn German. This works well for me because I really enjoy practicing improvisation theatre. Consequently, I could spent hours doing improvisation theatre because I find it funny.

Similarly, as I am very interested in photography, I am considering to attend a photography course in German. Of course in this case I would dedicate few hours to learn photography-related terms such as focus, aperture, and light before attending the course in order to maximise my understanding.


Recent research findings suggest that teaching non-language courses in a foreign language improves language learning.

I think it is important to accept, when using this indirect method to learn a language, that one may not understand everything and that some information would be lost by doing a course or any other activity in a foreign language but that it is ok because it is part of the game.

I do not think that this kind of strategy to learn a language should totally replace desk study of a language. It is still very useful, for example, to learn new words by using traditional methods such as flashcards. But by engaging in activity that you are interested in your target language you will dramatically increase the exposure to that language without feeling the burden of an intensive language course.



Testing the reading & listening method (R-L)

Photo by Emily Carlin

In this post I am discussing the reading & listening method to learn languages. I came across with this method on the language forum “how to learn any language” a great source of inspiration for language learners.

The reading & listening method (R-L) consists in reading a text while listening its audio version. Here is a summary of the main steps:

  1. During the first step of the R-L method the language learner uses an audiobook in the target language and a text in his own language or a language with which is familiar. The first step, reading the text translated in your own language, allows the language learner to listen and read the text in the second step without having to stop to check the dictionary.
  2. In the second step the language learner hears the audiobook in the target language but he reads the text in the same language.
  3. In the third step the language learner tries to repeat loudly the text while listening to the audiobook.

Ultimately, the language learner gets a lot of exposure to the target language and should be able to get a feeling for the language.

I immediately liked this method because it is no based on learning grammar and allows you to use reading material that you are interested in, at least when you achieve an intermediate level.

Sounds great but does it work?

I am currently testing this method; in this first post I will describe my first impressions and results after about 5 days of using intensively this method and in the next posts I will give further information and a final assessment of the pro and cons of the method.

The first texts that I have used to implement the L-R method are Grimm brothers’ fairy tales which are available for free on internet (the copyright has expired) together with audio versions. The main issue with this material is that the stories are too short, and the L-R method work better with long text as it is main objective is to provide a lot of exposure to the language.

Then I used The little prince. It was easy to find both the German version (target language) with an audiobook and an English version of the text. I listened the whole book in two sessions. Similarly to Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, this book turned out to be way too short to provide the right amount of exposure to the target language (German in my case).

Now I am using the first book of the Harry Potter “series”. This seems to work well, the book is enough long to provide a lot of exposure to the target language. I almost finished the book and I can notice an improvement in my reading comprehension of German but not yet any improvement on listening and speaking. I still have not implemented the third step of the method, where one repeats loudly the text after listening the audiobook, and this step could be the one that helps speaking improving speaking skills.



Who is the best teacher? Photo by Thomas Favre-Bulle

For long time I believed that the best language teacher is a native speaker of your target language but I recently realised that this is not always the case. The crucial factor is to differentiate between who are the best people to practice the language with and who are the best people to teach you how to learn the language.

Native speakers are certainly ideal to practice the language but they are not necessarily the best persons to teach you how to learn your target language for one simple reason: they did not have to learn it (not as adults).

I believe that someone that has already proved successful in what you are trying to do, learning your target language, would be the best person to teach you effective methods of study and learning because he already tested them on himself.

The native teacher would be more likely to assume that following a traitional textbook and learning grammar would be the way to learn a language if he did not face himself the challenge to learn it. A teacher that have already faced the challenge to learn a language as difficult as the one you are trying to learn is more likely to have realised that following a textbook is not always the best method to learn a language. In this case a language student would have some good indicators of how good are the teacher’s methods to learn a language by looking how well he himself learnt foreign languages and how much time did he spend to learn them. It follows that a teacher that has learned several difficult and different languages, such as Chinese, Japanese and say German, should have also learnt an effective way to learn languages, especially if he learnt them in a reasonable amount of time.

To sum up if you want to practice your target language do look for native speakers but if you want to find effective methods to learn your target language do find effective learners.



Learning languages with google translate

This week I will explain how I use google translate to learn German. I recommend this method to people that are at the intermediate level with their language level.

While learning German I faced the dilemma that most of the books to learn this language have really boring text. I started to read some of them but I rarely arrived to the end.

Then I realised that I it is better to read anything that you would read also in your native language, because it interests you.

For articles:
I found out that the ZEIT has a lot of interesting articles, but they are not that easy for someone at the intermediate level and I do not like to stop reading a lot of times to check words on the dictionary. So I used google translate to have on one tab the original version of the article and on another tab the translated tab. The nice things about google translate is that when you point with the cursor one sentence of the translation the original version will appear.

For books I suggest you two methods.

First method: you can download text of old books that are not anymore under copyright in your target language and then copy paste the text in google translate. You will find many websites with collection of books with no copyrights.

Second method: you can download text of old books that are not anymore under copyright in both your target language and in English. Then, you can divide a Word document in two columns by creating a table with two large columns and copy and past the text of the book in English and in your target language in each column. In this way you made a bilingual parallel text. Happy reading!



How to use and how to not use flashcards to learn words

Why you should do your own flashcards

word cloud made with wordle

I bought a set of flashcards to learn German words but soon after the initial enthusiasm I realised that they were almost useless and I ended up using them very little. Later, I started to do my own flashcards. I bought some blank cards and wrote on them the words that I wanted to learn. It turned out that this method worked much better, but why? After all they were not very different than the flashcards I bought.

I then realised that the difference was that by doing my own flashcards I was forced to choose which words I wanted to learn and to ask myself which words are more worth to learn?

The problem faced by the language learner, especially the beginner, is that there are so many words in a language that one cannot learn them all in a short amount of time (actually not even in a large amount of time). So it is essential to make some priorities.

The following are my criteria to choose which words write down on my flashcards.

Learn the most commons words first

To get the higher return for the amount of time that you invest to learn new words is better to learn first very common words. Learning these can be useful to give you a quick start in speaking and understanding. A classic and easy way to find out what are the most common words is to search on google for a list of the 100 most used words in your target language, or the most 1000 used words. You can do the same with verbs.

Learn the words that are relevant to the type of books and articles you read, or the radio programmes you hear.

For example, I read science news in German and when there are new words I select some of them and write it down on a flashcards. Also in this case I do not write down all the new words, I select the words that I think are going to be more useful in the future.

Create word clouds with Wordle

Wordle is an on-line program that takes some text as input and gives as output a graphical representation of the most frequent words in the text. Basically, you can copy the newspaper article that you are reading on-line and past it in wordle as a result you would know what are the most essential words (and sometimes concepts) used in that article.

What to write on the flashcards

Instead than just writing a word and a translation you can write also a sentence and its translation. By doing this you will learn the words in their normal context.

How to use your flashcards

In two previous posts I explained how to use improvisation games and theatre improvisation to learn a language. You can use your flashcards as a prompt to do improvisation games and to start an improv scene in your target language. By doing so you are forced to revise the words several times.



Improv- Photo by Michael Poley

In a previous post I explained how I use an improvisation exercise to learn German. In this post I will explain why and how I use theatre improvisation to learn German. Of course, German is just an example, the method can be applied to learn any language.

What is improv?
Theatre Improvisation , also called improv, consists of performing small theatre scenes without following a script but rather by interacting spontaneously with the other actors on stage. The only skill that an improvisation player should have is the willingness to say whatever passes through its mind and the willingness to not worry too much about how he/she performs (the latter is also a good requisite to learn a language).
To initiate a scene I usually extract randomly a sentence from a German book, but there are many other methods that can be used. For example, one could start by acting some activities or by uttering just the first thing that comes to his/her mind and the other actor/s would follow up from there.
When you want to use improvisation to learn a language the only difference with classic improvisation is that you would play in your target language and with actors that are native speakers in that language.

Why is improv useful to learn languages?
Last week I visited the video-games museum in Berlin. One of the panel in the museum argued that playing has always been important for humans because it gives the chance to learn skills in a safe environment before using them in the real world.
The beauty of using improv to learn a language is that it allows you to replicate a lot of different real social situations. One would argue: “why replicate social situation instead than learning by using real talk in real social situations?”. Well, having real social interactions and real talks is great to learn speaking a language but you may live in a place like Berlin, where after you uttered the first sentence in German people will switch in English to have a more comfortable dialogue. By doing improv in your target language you can increase the amount of time that you spend using the language in the same way it is used in real life situations.

The other element that makes improv really good to learn languages is that improv is really funny! When we have fun we learn faster and everybody who attended a boring lecture and a witty lecture know what I am talking about.

Finally, improvisation usually develops into short stories and as I discussed in previous posts the human brain seems to be wired to learn and remember better information when it is packaged in the format of stories.